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Moscow State University of Humanities

“If you want to hear me singing, we’ll have to shut the windows,” Eva Pesach, opera graduate from Moscow, tells me. Her voice is soft, sometimes almost a whisper. Eva, with her silvery turban and intricate jewelry, is naturally assertive, but her gentle refinement is her most striking quality. From where, I wonder, did she find the strength to stand firm against the administration of the Moscow State University of Humanities and emerge with a degree… without bowing to the pressure to sing in front of the male examiner? The windows shut, Eva begins to sing. And I believe that if I reach out, I will touch the rich, shimmery notes that fill the room.

 

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An Inherent Conflict

From as far back as the fifth century, Jews have lived in Caucasus, a mountain range situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Derbent, the southernmost city in Russia, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, was home to a large community of Caucasus (aka Kavkazi) Jews until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Eva’s family, part of this community, followed their traditional lifestyle. “Values like modesty were a part of our outlook,” says Eva.

While Eva’s early childhood involved a substantial amount of moving about, one factor remained constant: wherever they were, the children were enrolled in a religious school. In Hadera, Derbent’s twin city, the three children attended Shuvu, an Orthodox school system created for new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Back in Moscow four years later, the children attended the Lauder Etz-Chaim School. This schooling, coupled with the traditional values of her home, molded Eva’s future. “Hashem was always a part of my life. I remember as far back as when I was four. I had broken a picture. Afraid of the consequences, I begged Hashem to make everything work out,” Eva says.

Despite Orthodox schooling, music, singing and dancing if front of mixed audiences was very much a part of Eva’s reality. By the time she was eleven, Eva was enrolled in afternoon classes in cello and opera at one of the many classical music schools that Moscow is famous for. “While I didn’t have the best voice, I worked hard and managed to develop it well. By the time I was thirteen, everyone told me that I was a star on the rise,” Eva says. “My daily schedule was packed with events. I was entered into every contest that took place. And since I was very outgoing, I was often chosen to represent the school in events outside of opera,” she says. Eva may have been a soprano coloratura on the rise, but her father wasn’t happy. “My father was against my music. As a Caucasus Jew, stage performances went against his value system,” Eva says.

 

The Conflict Thickens

The disapproval of her father was only the beginning of the conflict Eva was to face. “When I was eighteen, about to finish high school, my teacher, Rebbetzin Devori Mandel, recommended that I go to Israel to get a taste of real Torah. A second teacher suggested that I study music in Israel. Inside, I laughed. I was about to enroll at the Moscow State University of Humanities to study opera and music,” says Eva. Life was about opera and music. Or was it?

“I lived with conflict. When you study music at such a high level, there is a strong focus on the external. Opera was the whole world for my colleagues. There was no content in their lives except music. Mozart was revered as a genius. While I scorned this intense focus on music, I loved to sing,” says Eva.

As a woman, Eva’s conflict was doubled because she already knew that the Torah forbids women to sing in front of men. “I knew that Hashem didn’t want it, but I found a million reasons why I could still do it. I told myself that I was using music to raise the spiritual awareness of my audience and I tried to believe that Hashem was surely with me,” says Eva. After all, Jewish women have always tapped into the power of music: Miriam led the women in song at the Yam Suf; Devorah sang after Israel’s victory over the forces of Sisera; and Chana sang when she had a child.

The gap between what Eva was doing and her core beliefs continued to widen. At eighteen, she began volunteering at Torah Mi Tzion, an organization that strengthens Jewish awareness. While Eva organized Shabbatons on a regular basis, ironically, she never attended them. “I was so tired from the organizing, that I’d go home,” she says wryly. A year later, finally keeping Shabbos and kosher, Eva began to teach in Torah Mi Tzion. “I loved teaching and grew tremendously from the lessons I prepared,” she says. “But I was still performing in front of men.”

In the meantime, her sister Golda, now fully observant, had married and moved to the States. “I was torn. I wanted to be like my sister, but I didn’t want to lose out on anything that I loved,” says Eva. On a visit to the States, Golda told her, “Whatever you do, make sure you do it properly. Choose one thing and don’t let go of it even if it feels like your world is collapsing.” It was advice that Eva was to follow… even at the risk of losing her world.

 

Resolving the Conflict

In the summer of 2015, now twenty-one, Eva went to Neve Yerushalayim to study for two weeks. Two weeks segued into two months. “I was here alone without my family, without my studies. I was able to focus on where I wanted my life to go. By the time I flew back home, I felt like I had just come down from Har Sinai,” she says. Eva was back in Moscow, but her heart was in Jerusalem. “I had finally made the decision not to sing in front of men. I had no idea how I was going to carry out my decision, but I knew that I wasn’t going to let my mentor know I was back,” says Eva. “My friends thought I’d gone crazy. Was I really going to give up my career?”

At this crossroads, Eva saw Hashem’s guiding hand. It was 2015, the Shabbat Project, introduced to the world by Rabbi Warren Goldstein, was happening in Moscow too. Eva was asked to perform at the community challah bake. A video recording shows Eva, with live musical accompaniment, singing shir hamaalos to an enraptured audience… of women only. Next came the communal Chanukah celebration. Once again, Eva performed if front of an audience of hundreds of women. “As I stood in the wings, waiting to come on stage, Rebbetzin Devorie Mandel told the audience how all that we want to do can be done in kedusha… including singing. And I saw that it could really happen,” says Eva.

Two weeks later, Eva was back in Israel to recharge her batteries… and to date. “I felt that I had so much more spiritual growing to do. Even though I wasn’t sure where I was heading, one thing was clear: I wasn’t going to marry an avreich learning in kollel. My friends had told me that it would be too hard for me to adapt to the financial reality of kollel life and I felt they were right,” says Eva.

So when the shadchanit suggested Emanuel Pesach, who was enrolled in Rav Zamir Cohen’s Beitar Illit Yeshiva, she was careful to stress that the young man was qualified as a mashgiach, mohel and sofer stam, and aspiring shochet. “As soon as I saw Emanuel, I knew that I hadn’t met someone like him ever before. It was clear that he wanted to be a true servant of Hashem,” says Eva. It didn’t take long for Emanuel to ask Eva if she was prepared to be the wife of an avreich, but she sidestepped the issue neatly. At the end of three meetings, it was clear that the couple was suited to each other. But Eva was no closer to giving an answer on whether or not she could be the wife of an avreich. “I’d always wanted to be close to Hashem. Emanuel was the push that made me take the final step. He made me realize that I too wanted to be a servant of Hashem… even if it meant that I’d have to make a lot of life-style changes to fit in with the vision we were going to build together. My entire teshuva process had been slow. And that meant that when I made the final step, I was determined,” says Eva.

Three months later, immediately after their wedding, the couple relocated to Moscow. “Emanuel’s rabbis hadn’t given their blessings on our decision. I was taking an avreich who had spent the last two years of his life within the hallowed walls of a yeshiva and dropping him into the spiritual barrenness of Moscow. But I was determined to finish my fourth year of study at the university and graduate,” says Eva. It certainly wasn’t your typical shana rishona and I realized how important it is to live in a supportive community.”

When Eva resumed her studies at the university, the entire department was in an uproar. “I was liked by everyone, but it was clear to them that I’d gone crazy and their affection soon turned to anger,” she says. In order to graduate, Eva was required to sing before a government official to get a grade. Eva’s request for a female official was considered bizarre and ignored. “I davened and cried, but I couldn’t think of a way out. The day before the exam, I woke up with a horrific toothache that made part of my face swell hideously,” says Eva. A rush appointment to the dentist produced a form stating that she couldn’t sing.

Even so, things didn’t go smoothly. “The entire examination board circled me. Despite my swollen face, they claimed I could sing and that I was simply making up excuses. One of my teachers declared that my roof had fallen in – a Russian idiom, that means I’d lost my marbles,” Eva says. Forced to call the dentist to confirm the authenticity of the letter, Eva almost despaired. But Golda’s words rang out strongly: Whatever you do, make sure you do it properly. Choose one thing and don’t let go of it even if it feels like your world is collapsing.

Over the following weeks, Eva was in contact with the head of the department, a Muslim woman who had more understanding of Eva’s issues. “I begged and cajoled and eventually, against all protocol, the woman gave me a grade. And my degree,” she says.

Back in Israel, Eva settled into life as the wife of an avreich. Adjustments were plentiful. “I was used to living in a city with 20 million people. Beitar is a village with 50,000 residents,” she says. Following the advice of a friend who told her to grab any job she could get, because she’d never support a family with her music, Eva approached Rabbi Shalom Arush’s Chut Shel Chessed network. “I offered me a job answering phone calls, but luckily when I told them I could do much more, I became the head of the Russian language department,” Eva says.

But music – and teaching – have remained Eva’s passion. Taking the plunge, Eva recently resigned from her managerial position. While she still enjoys writing articles for Chut Shel Chessed, music has become her focal point. Today, she teaches at the prestigious Chadash seminary, organizes annual choirs, offers private vocal training classes and gives frequent performances where she intersperses her inspirational lectures with inspirational singing.

Eva moves with ease between opera, folk songs, Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Chassidish songs, Hebrew, English, Yiddish, Ladino and modern artists. For Eva, melody is a way to both express and evoke emotion. “My musical performances are interactive. I take my audience with me on journey to their inner selves. Words of Torah are followed by music that encapsulates the idea I want to give over. The wisdom of Torah accompanied by uplifting music encourages women to venture into their inner world and find who they are,” says Eva. While words are the language of the mind, music is the language of the soul. And when the soul sings, the spirit soars. It’s all about singing your own song.

 

*To book a performance please contact Eva at: eva.akivaeva@gmail.com or (0)54-6895608.

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.